The Hippie Years:  The Last Days of the Kulshan Tavern
 
 The following is from the Western Front (Western Washington University Student Newspaper) on November 7, 1975.   The names of the historic buildings have been added in italics.  The Kulshan Tavern was located in the Waldron Block, in the location that was previously a series of banks.....starting with the Bank of Fairhaven in 1891!  
 
 



November 1, 1975 Photo courtesy Whatcom Museum Photo Archives

Western Front
November 7, 1975

Kulshan Tavern passes on to fond memories

by BOB SPEED

The South Side moved closer to death last week when its heart quit beating and the Kulshan Tavern died.  The Kulshan closed its doors for the last time the day before Halloween— the last public act of Bellingham's oldest watering hole, and one of the final gasps of a hip tradition which began in the lazy, hazy days of the sixties.

The tavern's fate was sealed as long as three years ago, when South Side developer Ken Imus bought the building housing the Kulshan (The Waldron Block) and its neighbor, the Fairhaven Tavern.  The Fairhaven will also close within the next two weeks — the owners are mum as to when. They're trying to transfer their liquor license to 1114 Harris St., two blocks away.  "Imus came to restore the area's tradition," one long-time Kulshanite observed, "and destroyed the real history in the process."

Cold, rainy nights were Kulshan nights. As wind pelted the rain into fine mist which cut to the bone, the Kulshan's dim lights would pierce the damp. Strains of banjo bluegrass or mouth harp blues would carry through the fogged windows.  Fiddling with the old door latch and stepping inside, the air was usually thick with smoke. Often the pungent odor of marijuana, or occasionally the aromatic perfume of strong hashish, blended with the acrid smell of hand-rolled tobacco. Years of smoke not sealed in human lungs caked thickly like dull paint on the dingy walls.

The back corner of the tavern, lit by ancient lamps with bare bulbs, was the pulse of the Kulshan — a place where local musicians would congregate and play until closing time. Fiddles and banjos sawed and twanged bluegrass, or mouth harps, steel-body dobros and guitars moaned the blues of a Bellingham winter.

On heavy nights, when the Kulshan was packed, it was difficult to turn around, much less get to the bar. Jim, the rotund bartender would be filling pitchers and yelling his impatience to demands for service. His baritone curses brought a bare modicum of civility to what bordered on a free-for-all, which almost never happened.

On other nights, Jim would stand with one elbow on the bar, talking to a regular and drying schooner glasses with a towel, while outside the sounding drizzle would be softened by the fog on the tavern windows.

Most any night, octogenarian honorary mayor of Fairhaven Bobby Burns would meander into the Kulshan or Fairhaven, or both. Hanging his cane on the bar and looping a thumb into his coat, he'd order up in his gutteral voice, hardly distinguishable from the sound of shoeleather on the barroom floor.

Predicting a Kulshan crowd was like trying to predict a salmon run.  On any night, the place might be as quiet as death, or it might be more like a purse seiner's bulging net. A trip to the John on those nights could make a person understand how a salmon feels going upstream to spawn.  The restrooms themselves were a trip, a place for a mind-expanding journey into the obscene. The Kulshan encouraged, nay, took pride in its graffiti. The scrawls on its walls were without parallel in Bellingham.  Bawdy, gross and ruggedly anarchic, the walls themselves offered a challenge to authority and the status quo that was so acerbic, one wondered how society withstood the assault.  Hair pie was the Kulshan's snubbing answer to Mom's variety.  The Kulshan was the watering hole of the grassroots proletariats who couldn't stomach the plasticity or gaminess of other tavern crowds.

Now the Kulshan regulars are homeless.  They may find another home, another tavern might even open with the Kulshan's name, but it won't be the same. Something died.  The closure of the Kulshan is one of the last acts of slow death, now overtaking the once vibrant counterculture life which epitomized an alternative to the mechanistic and materialistic society around it.

The withering process began more than three years ago with the closure of Pluto's, (E.M. Day Building) a rough longhair and biker hangout. It continued with the closure of Bank Books and Toad Hall in the old bank building (Nelson Block) bought by Imus, and the giving up of the unsuccessfully transplanted Toad's ghost, other small businessed which began in Fairhaven moved downtown: Sur Lado Taco, Mojo Music, and Cheezeburger Sign Company.

The last holdout soon will be the Good Earth building, (Morgan Block) the only building Imus couldn't buy. It houses the food co-op, Northwest Passage offices, and a few small shops.

Last Saturday night, an effigy of Imus hung from the sign outside the Kulshan.   A few people pressed against the window and looked at the silent interior of the Kulshan, as would people viewing the bier of a loved one. A lone light gave long shadows to packing boxes lining the stained and scarred bar. The familiar barrage of posters, humorous signs and gauche bar art still obscured the old mirror. Soon that too would be bare.

Low voices cast final judgments on the life of an old friend. A last look inside, and the sound of footsteps gritted against concrete sounded unfamiliar in the Saturday night stillness.